Putting the worst refugee crisis of our times in historical context
On June 29, I was very glad to attend an important online discussion in recognition of World Refugee Day, which was organized by the Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice and the Liberation War Museum.
The guest of honour was the Honourable Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen, who gave the keynote address, and the function was also addressed by Steven Corliss, UNHCR’s Bangladesh country representative and the country representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Raquibul Amin.
The opening and closing addresses were made by the trustees of the Liberation War Museum, Sarwar Ali and Mofidul Hoque, and the event was moderated by Naureen Rahim, coordinator, Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice. There was also a remarkable presentation of the Thread Exhibit: An Online Exhibition of Harvard University Asia Centre and the Liberation War Museum. This can be found through this link: https://www.threadexhibit.com.
This year, Bangladesh has to face the challenges of both a refugee humanitarian catastrophe and a disease epidemic, Covid-19. Every year, in the months of June and July, I remember being involved, in 1971, with the overwhelming humanitarian crisis of millions of Bangladesh refugees in Eastern India and a lethal epidemic, cholera, which swept through the camps where I was overseeing Oxfam’s work with about 600,000 refugees of the 10 million who had fled from Bangladesh.
As I follow the news of the work being undertaken in the refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar, I remember how lethal the cholera was in 1971. In some camps, 30% of those affected with cholera died, much higher than Covid-19. In those days, the value of ORSaline was being discovered, and where it was being implemented under medical supervision, the death rate dramatically reduced to only 3%.
As a result of my experience of 1971, and having visited the Rohingya Refugee Camps in Cox’s Bazar District, first in October 2017, I am often asked about my extensive feelings, what I think should be done, and how I see the future for these people from the Rakhine State.
In 1971, we knew that all the refugees from Bangladesh wished to return to their homes in Bangladesh after the fighting ceased. They wanted to return home. In actual fact, they returned home much more quickly than we expected, and all the refugees had returned to Bangladesh by the end of February 1972.
The Rohingya do not feel the same way at all. They have been systematically attacked, tortured, and have suffered humiliating discrimination on a regular basis since independence from the British in 1948. There is a record of more than 20 such armed “clearance operations” since that year.
Why would they want to return home to the Rakhine State? They know the situation and they will not consider going back until they have cast iron commitments and internationally guaranteed assurances.
I was very angry that when people (especially foreigners) started writing about the crisis three years ago, most of them did not do any proper historical research, even recent history. In 1978, the military junta of Yangon launched the operation “Naga Min” or “King Dragon.” Over 10,000 Rohingya are said to have been killed during this operation and about 250,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh.
Around 40,000 Rohingya women, children, and elderly people, it is said, perished during the journey. The refugees were sheltered in 13 refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban as well as in some outer areas. However, the Burmese regime again took back these refugees under a program titled “Operation Golden Eagle” following an agreement signed with the Bangladesh government in 1979.
In early 1992, I attended a UNHCR meeting in Dhaka about a Rohingya influx at that time. Later on, over 20 years ago, while working with the Red Cross and based in Dhaka, I had oversight of the Red Cross/Red Crescent work among about 30,000 refugees in Kutapalong and Nayapara camps.
Let’s go back a few centuries
However, to understand things much more, one needs to go back many centuries at which time eastern Bengal had become a cauldron in which a mixture of different races had bubbled, boiled over, and occasionally quietly simmered. Although Islam had touched the coastal areas of Bengal between the 8th and 12th centuries, it was in the 13th century when Muhammad Bakhtiyar established a Muslim-ruled state, the first of many dominated by non-Bengalis, including Turks, North Indians, Afghans, Arakanese, and Ethiopians.
In the 16th century, Portuguese freebooters from Goa secured a foothold but, failing to found an empire, either entered service of the rajahs of Arakan as mercenaries or turned pirate. The struggle for supremacy between the Muslims and Buddhists came to a head in 1661 when the rajah of Arakan put to death the Mogul viceroy of Bengal who had sought refuge with him, leading to a punitive expedition which resulted in the whole Arakan district becoming a province of the Mogul empire. Chittagong for some time was known as Islamabad. And for a while the cauldron simmered, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic living in uneasy peace with one another.
The Burmese conquered Arakan in the 1780s, which led to the arrival of refugees, including many militants who then used the British territory as a base from which to launch counter-attacks against the Burmese occupying Arakan.
When some sort of peace treaty had been agreed on, Captain Cox had the task of looking after 30,000 to 40,000 refugees.
British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from adjacent regions to migrate into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan as farm labourers. The East India Company extended the Bengal Presidency to Arakan. There was no international boundary between Bengal and Arakan and no restrictions on migration between the regions. In the early 19th century, thousands of Bengalis from the Chittagong region settled in Arakan seeking work.
It is difficult to know whether these new Bengal migrants were the same population that was deported by force to Bengal’s Chittagong during the Burmese conquest in the 18th century and later returned to Arakan as a result of British policy, or if they were a new migrant population with no ancestral roots in Arakan.
An uncle of my mother, who lived and worked in Rangoon in the 1930s, said that although a few Rohingya trace their ancestry to Muslims who lived in Arakan in the 15th and 16th centuries, most Rohingyas arrived with the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries.
I wonder how many people have taken the trouble to understand that for centuries, the Burmese have wanted the Arakan Muslims out of Burma. It is not just something that has festered since independence in 1948. Now, it seems, Chinese-connected commercial interests are pushing state sponsored land-grabbing at a fast rate.
In October 2017, as a member of a “Citizens’ Commission for Investigating Genocide and Terrorism in Burma,” I visited the Kutapulong and Balukhali refugee camps at Teknaf. Collecting evidence that could be used in any submission to the International Criminal Court, we interviewed a number of refugees who had recently arrived in Cox’s Bazar District. I remember that one man told us that:
• No new mosques could be built for the last 20 years
• They had not been able to pray in existing mosques for the last five years
• Even in a village with 100 Muslim families and five Buddhist families, the village leader always has to be Buddhist
• Children had not been able/allowed to go to school after August 25, 2017
• Married couples are not allowed to have more than two children
• Birth registration has not been done for the last few years
• The nearest health facility was 2.8km away but only Burmese Buddhists have been seen there from 2015
• In 2010, he and his father were forced to vote (to give a semblance of “democracy”)
Although the Rohingya from Rakhine have no status, many of the Rohingya with whom I talked said they would go back to their homes in Rakhine State if they were convinced it would be safe, their land was restored to them, and ownership was guaranteed, and they were given Myanmar citizenship.
A number of them said that they had brought their land documents with them and so could prove ownership. However, one old woman told me that this was the third time she had escaped persecution and certain death and come to Bangladesh as a refugee, and that this time she would refuse to go back to Rakhine State.
It will, indeed, be very difficult to persuade many Rohingya to return to Rakhine State.As demanded by the refugees, the pre-requisites for repatriation are:
• Recognize of the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic minority of Myanmar
• Issue national security cards to all Rohingya
• Lift all form of restrictions and harassments such as travel ban, marriage restriction, land and property confiscation, extortion, arbitrary arrest, forced ration collection for army, etc
• Stop building model villages and send back all model villagers to their original villages
• Return all confiscated lands and properties to the original owners
• Give assurance for religious freedom
• Give access for higher education and provide enough hospitals and medical facilities in northern Arakan
The international community has neglected the Rohingya problem for decades and now, with some countries, especially China, blocking negotiations, the way ahead is uncertain to say the least.
Severe United Nations sanctions should have been clamped down on Myanmar a long time ago. The Bangladesh government has, in my opinion, been far too polite in their negotiations with Myanmar. The government needs to increase the pressure on Myanmar and internationally to ensure that the recommendations of the Kofi Annan report are accepted and implemented as quickly as possible.
In addition, although the importance of DFID-UKAid is, sadly, likely to be reduced in the future, the British government should still play a far stronger role now, particularly as, historically, the Muslims of Arakan had been assured that at the transfer of power from Great Britain in 1947, Arakan would become part of East Pakistan.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.